Wine 101: French Region Deep Dives: Beaujolais

This episode’s sponsor of “Wine 101” is Talbott Vineyards, home of the legendary Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. Sounds mysterious, right? Sleepy Hollow is famous for producing acclaimed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Now, this is where it gets weird. Every day, the vineyard gets shrouded in cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean, but it’s all good. The grapes ripen more slowly and end up packed with concentrated flavor and color. To try Talbott Vineyards wine, follow the link in the episode description to

In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into Beaujolais, one of France’s many winemaking regions. Burgundy’s southern neighbor, Beaujolais has developed around a grape variety that has been eradicated from Burgundy. Today, the region is going through a complete revival. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and what I really love about the ‘90s is that they’re over. OK, so Doc Martens are cool. But are we really going to start burning CDs again? What are we doing?

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcast network, this is “Wine 101” and my name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tastings director at VinePair. And how you doing?

So, today we’re talking about Beaujolais. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. You may have actually enjoyed it. You may know something called Beaujolais Nouveau. We’ll get into it. But today’s the day we’re going to really understand Beaujolais — that rhymed.

So, I know that you guys have heard of Beaujolais because one of the most popular wines in America, for a time, was a wine called Beaujolais Nouveau. And if you don’t know what that is, that’s because this was a big deal in the ‘80s. And then it fizzled out — the ‘70s and the ‘80s — and it fizzled out in popularity in the ‘90s. So, if you don’t know what Beaujolais Nouveau is, don’t worry, we’re going to get into it. But for those of you who do know what Beaujolais Nouveau is, you may not know about the entire region of Beaujolais, because when Beaujolais Nouveau was marketed to us, that’s all it was marketed to us as, an easy-drinking red wine. Get ready. This is going to be awesome. Chill it down. Yay. And the region itself, I don’t know if it ever got the love it deserved because today we’re finally starting to see the entire region being celebrated in our market. It’s time to get nice with Beaujolais.

Before we get started, I’m going to mention a process in this episode called carbonic maceration. And unfortunately, I won’t be able to go into the details of it but I did an episode on it in Season 2.5, Episode 15. So go ahead and give that a listen. Also, even though this wine region’s close to, or even considered sometimes part of the greater Burgundy area, I won’t be getting into Burgundy. But if you want a good, well-rounded Burgundian brain-knowledge, check out Season 1, Episode 17, and that’ll get you started.

So, OK, let’s do this. South of the Burgundy region, there is a wine region called Beaujolais. This region, south of Burgundy, has almost 400,000 acres of land under vine and is made up of about 100 communes. And because it is south of Burgundy, it also takes advantage of the hills of the Central Massif. It’s just south of Burgundy, so it’s doing the same thing. The topography is going to be different, but it’s on that Massif. And the thing is, when that Massif… All the way in the southern part of France, there’s a town called Marseille, a city called Marseille. From Marseille all the way up through that eastern part of the Massif going up through Burgundy, there was an old ancient Roman trading road. So wine and vines have been in this area for quite some time. Again, go ahead and listen to the Burgundian episode. And of course, after the Romans came and went, there were vines there. So then we’re in the Middle Ages.

So, of course, like everything in Europe, enter the monks. The monks are there from the Middle Ages. They’re actually starting to maintain vineyards, plant vineyards, cordon them, and everything. And this is the beginning of the monk thing. This is just south of Burgundy. So Burgundy was right there. It was all happening at once. And throughout the Middle Ages, Beaujolais was considered a southern neighbor of Burgundy with all the dukes and stuff happening up there. Beaujolais was actually a province that is now in the Southern Rhône department, but there is the town of Bijou, which is the capital of this province. So that’s how the Beaujolais name is still around, because of that landmark at this time.

And prior to the 14th century, you had all different kinds of varieties being grown in this area. There was Gouais Blanc, there was Pinot Noir, there was Chardonnay, there was Pinot Blanc, there was Pinot Gris. There was Gamay, but at the time they called it “Gameez.” But if you listen to the Burgundy episode, you know that a lot of noble people loved Pinot Noir and eventually Chardonnay, to the point that in the 14th century, towards the end of the 14th century, Philip the Bold, who was in charge at that time, put out an edict.

And get this, quote: “A very bad and disloyal variety called Gameez from which come abundant quantities of wine. And this of Gameez is such a kind that it is very harmful to human creatures. So much so that many people who had it in the past were infested by serious diseases, as we’ve heard because said wine from said plant of said nature is full of significant and horrible bitterness. For this reason, we solemnly command you, all who have said vines, said Gameez, to cut them down, to have them cut down wherever they may be in our country within five months.”

This is an OG, old-school, misinformation campaign. And such is the fate of the Gamay variety in that this is the first time we see Gamay in documentation. So, the first time this grape was ever documented, is when a ruler said, “Get it out of here because I tell you it’s dangerous for you.” Even though it’s not. And in doing this, this would successfully eradicate Gamay from the Burgundy region. And as we’ve talked about over the past few seasons we’ve had here, grapes move all around. Gamay ended up going around and making its way east and into the Loire Valley and stuff. But before that, it made its way just south, just south in the neighboring province called Beaujolais. And I don’t — I’m pretty sure Phil the Bold didn’t know what he was doing — but what he did do in eradicating Gamay from Burgundy is he brought it to its actual spiritual home.

So Gamay moves basically to the Beaujolais region. And the Beaujolais region at the time was, like I said, just south of Burgundy. So it was still taking advantage of the hills of the Central Massif, just a little bit south of the Burgundy region. So Beaujolais begins to establish itself as a region that grows and makes wine from the grape Gamay. And it’s doing it somewhat in isolation until railways and canals are built, which inevitably builds a distribution market, which is then distributed to Paris. And when the Parisians get a taste of this wine, they kinda lose it and demand becomes more and more so that this little region just south of Burgundy starts to move south and expand all the way to the bustling town of Lyon. So now we have a wine region that goes from Macon, which is in the southern part of Burgundy, all the way to Lyon. And when you’re in Lyon, you’re getting basically into the Rhône. And this southern part of the region would eventually be called Bas Beaujolais or Southern Beaujolais.

And I say this because in the 19th century, the British wine explorer Cyrus Redding would write that the wines from the Beaujolais region are extremely refreshing and best to be consumed in their youth. So we’re starting to get a sense of what Beaujolais is all about. Also at the time, he mentions three communes in this Northern part of the Beaujolais region, Saint-Amour, Moulin-à-Vent, and Chénas. These will eventually become crus. We’ll talk about that in a second. So in 1936, Beaujolais becomes an appellation when the French are creating their appellation system. But because of Parisian popularity and based off of what Cyrus Redding was talking about — the refreshing, early-drinking red wines of Beaujolais — they become even more popular. And this popularity eventually morphs into a fad or a trend called Beaujolais Nouveau. And what that means is the wines that are made in Beaujolais often would go through what’s called carbonic maceration. And that was a way of creating wine in its youth that had certain characteristics that added to its fresh, juicy nature.

The Nouveau idea in wine is not new. Every wine region in Europe usually has some sort of new wine to celebrate the harvest. And that’s really what this originally was. But there was a man by the name of Georges Duboeuf who decided to market this. And by the ‘70s and the ‘80s, Beaujolais Nouveau was all the rage all over the world, especially in France, Paris, and absolutely the United States. For the French, it was a celebration of harvest. And for us, it was in wine, a celebration of the initiation of the holiday season, really. And so people would scramble to get these wines. Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau was not complex. It was fruity and juicy and sweet, smelled sometimes and tasted like bubble gum, and people put ice in it. It was a crazy fad that fizzled out almost completely by 1992.

But because of the popularity of this — I keep on saying popularity. But because of the craze we had here of this wine, the entire region was really making wine with carbonic maceration. So even up in the northern part of Beaujolais where the soils and the elevations were different, more variant, poor soils, really great for Vitis vinifera vines, especially Gamay because it was born there, there were people making wine in the traditional way, just the way you make red wine. But a lot of them were making wine in the carbonic maceration process because of that need for the market, that need for that bubble gum, juicy fruit that people were drinking on. But the thing is, while all this popularity was happening and then fizzling out, the region was noticing that in the northern part of Beaujolais — I mean for a long time — the northern part of Beaujolais, there were certain communes that were special with certain terroir, certain climate, differences that gave Gamay unique characteristics.

So by the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s, as Beaujolais Nouveau was fizzling out in popularity, the region was creating a cru system. And today we have that. And because the Beaujolais Nouveau idea fizzled out so early, back in the ‘90s, we’re just now in the past 10-15 years, starting to enjoy a different kind of Beaujolais. A Beaujolais that was once around before the whole Beaujolais Nouveau craze happened, a place that is going further and further away from carbonic maceration and going further into regular traditional red winemaking and even some barrel aging. What?

So now we have a wine region that’s dedicated primarily, I mean, there’re some variations, but primarily to the Gamay variety. And now we have 10 communes in the northern part of Beaujolais that will give us different, slight characteristic styles of the Gamay variety.

And even though these communes are more quote-unquote, let’s call them “serious Gamay,” it’s undeniable that even within this more serious commune cru system, that Beaujolais is always going to be somewhat light and refreshing. Jancis Robinson, the Jedi wine master, puts it really well, quote: “Early drinking Beaujolais at its best provides a yardstick for all of the world’s attempts to put red refreshment in a bottle. Being a wine that is essentially flirtatious with a juicy aroma, which combined with its promise of appetizing acidity is sufficient to release the gastric juices before even a mouthful of the wine has been drunk.” Unquote.

I mean, maybe rewind that and listen to it again. That just sums it up perfectly because Beaujolais Nouveau is still around, and actually, some winemakers are doing it in a style that’s a little more focused than Georges Duboeuf did on that mass market. But even the most focused, small-production Beaujolais is going to vibe like that. So this is how it’s going to break down on the American market for all y’all out there because it’s time to start getting into Beaujolais, whether it’s summer, whether it’s spring, I mean, all four seasons. Actually, Beaujolais for Thanksgiving? Forget about it. It’s absolutely, almost perfect.

So this is how it breaks down. The thing is about half of the wine made in the entire region is sold as just Beaujolais. And it’s going to be inexpensive and it’s going to be more towards that sort of Beaujolais Nouveau style, even though it may not be Beaujolais Nouveau. But that usually comes from that flatter Bas Beaujolais region. And it’s not going to be 100 percent representative of the other areas we’re about to talk about. OK, let’s see if I can get all this in.

The northern half of Beaujolais, this is the rockier, hillier, poor soils, diverse soil compositions from commune to commune. And from north to south in that upper half are 10 communes that are now crus: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Fleurie, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly. And each of these has its own special characteristics. Like Saint-Amour in the extreme north actually does a little bit of Chardonnay. Then Juliénas, which is just south of that, is…  they don’t do Chardonnay, they only do Gamay. But this Gamay has some backbone to it, some good acidity because of those poor soils.

Moulin-à-Vent, which is one of the most famous of the 10 crus and one of the oldest areas that was recognized for awesome wine, actually has — in the category of light red wines — it actually has more concentration and they actually have some heft to them. Sometimes a little bit meaty, a little bit spicy. Fleurie has lighter, more floral styles. There’s actually a co-op there, so a lot of that wine comes from that cru onto our market. Then you have Morgon, which is one of the largest of the crus. And again, they have wines that are a little more dense. There’s actually an area in that commune or that cru, that has a certain kind of blue stone rock that is an ex-volcanic rock in the center of this cru and it makes very special wine. It’s called Côte du Py, P-Y. The thing is every cru has something special to offer.

And wine lovers, this is a very exciting region for us to explore. I mean, you get to go to wine shops and try a wine from 10 crus. That’s 10 Beaujolais. And you get to taste every single one and maybe either take mental notes or just put notes on paper, just to get a sense of why they’re different from one another. Get a Fleurie, taste it, enjoy it, think about it. Then get a Morgon and go, “Oh my gosh. So different. But in the same wine region.” And then you can even go within the communes and try producer to producer and they will also have slight differences. It’s a beautiful, very cool region with very refreshing and sometimes, not aged — where these wines don’t age, just so you know. They’re not going to age. I mean, some maybe 10 years, maybe 15. And that’s fine. And there are a lot of winemakers in this part. In Beaujolais, they’re trying to get to that point where they’re going to take Gamay and they’re trying to make it age and all that.

But for us, for you to get involved and to enjoy Beaujolais, all you’ve got to do is go to a wine shop that you trust and start asking from cru to cru to cru and give them a try and see what happens.

OK. There was my crash course on Beaujolais. I really hope it got you guys excited to go out and get some of these wines because they’re really, really awesome. And as always, if you dig them, take a shot. @VinePairKeith is my Insta. Let me know.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.